Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Tiny Cemetery – Dangerous Deeds

As promised, I return now to finish the story and intrigue surrounding my family’s tiny cemetery. We last left off with my cousins in disbelief, earth-moving machines tossing grave markers into a creek bed while looking down the barrel of a shotgun, and both sides believing that they were the rightful owners of the land in question.

I am the fourth great grandniece of Keren Reeve, born in about 1816 and daughter of the memorial subject of the tiny cemetery, Isaac Reeve, my fifth great grandfather. Keren never married, and lived the farming life with her brother, John, for many years until her death. Prior to her death on 14 May 1885, she deeded the land for the cemetery as “one acre, more or less” for the purpose of a family burial ground, a very common custom at the time in Illinois. Her parents and other family members already were at rest there, and it was Keren’s desire to preserve this land officially for that purpose.

In the 1880s, it was still commonplace in Illinois for a document such as a deed to be written, signed, and witnessed, and then taken to the court clerk for filing and affixing of the clerk’s seal. Filing at that time consisted of the clerk copying the document by hand into the clerk’s record. The dutiful clerk in Morgan County, Illinois, did just that, and as far as Keren Reeve knew, the land was preserved perpetually as the family cemetery.

Now we’ve all copied things by hand before, right? Maybe it wasn’t a deed, but some record? Or something simple, like a friend’s Christmas cookie recipe? A phone number while standing at the mall after you’ve run into someone you haven’t seen in ages?  Did you ever make a mistake and copy it wrong?

To make a long story short, that’s what the clerk had done.

I’m going to stop for a second and apologize to the reader for not having the deed images available to post here today. I wanted to finish this story for those who might be waiting to find out the gory details, but having moved not too long ago and being in the midst of planning a wedding (mine), I have not unpacked the most “precious” of my genealogical goodies. So I’m doing this next part from memory in the midst of about 30 boxes of family history materials.

The clerk of Morgan County at the time the deed was filed made an error in transcription. Illinois follows the township mapping system where everything is nice and neat and square. So instead of the cemetery being located, for example, in the NE1/4 of NE1/4 of Section 16 Township 15N Range 9W (which is actually Antioch Cemetery, just down the road) as Keren had written in the original deed, the clerk wrote “the SE1/4 of the SE1/4 of Section…”

So the comparison of the original deed in possession of my cousin and the deed as transcribed and recorded by the County Clerk showed that in essence, both parties were correct (though I have often wondered about the moral turpitude of someone bulldozing a cemetery). The moral case prevailed at this point, mostly because the damage had already been so extensively done. The new landowner stopped his destruction, and my cousins were left to tend to what was left of the tiny cemetery, which they did for many, many years. This spring, I am mounting a huge clean-up effort to bring the tiny place of rest back out of the bushes that have now overtaken it while I have been away from caretaking it. My cousins entrusted me with Keren’s original deed and all of the affidavits and research that was done to save the cemetery and it is the least I can do to continue to preserve it.

So what did I learn from this story? Original documents are original depending upon what the meaning of “original” is. The best original document you can possibly find as “proof” of the existence of a person or place is THE best source to use. It’s important to know the provenance of such an original – who had it and where was it kept for the past 100 or so years? Search, search, and search again until you are certain you have exhausted every angle, every record. Listen to the stories your relatives have to tell, because they may give you a lot of information, and be quite entertaining to boot.

And no matter how beautiful their handwriting, former clerks of the court were human, too. 

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